SANTA FE – A lawsuit targeting New Mexico’s COVID-19 vaccination requirements for hospital workers has encountered another legal setback as a panel of federal appeals court judges on Tuesday upheld a lower court ruling rejecting a request to halt enforcement of the mandate.
While the ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could still be appealed to the Supreme Court and the case itself is still pending, it marks the latest in a series of rulings upholding the vaccine mandate that was enacted last summer by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration.
A Lujan Grisham spokeswoman lauded the ruling Tuesday.
“Vaccination policies save lives and protect New Mexicans,” said the governor’s spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett. “We’re gratified that their function as a public health tool has been upheld.”
However, the federal judges did include a caveat of sorts in their Tuesday ruling, saying a vaccine mandate that was reasonable at the apex of the pandemic could become “less rational” if more research and data emerges about the vaccine’s effectiveness.
While top state health officials have insisted the COVID-19 vaccine is still effective at reducing risk of serious illness, New Mexico and other states have seen a recent increase in virus cases – including among those fully vaccinated.
New Mexico’s vaccine-related public health order was issued in August 2021 and remains in place nearly one year later. It requires a COVID-19 vaccination for people working in “high-risk” settings, including hospitals, nursing homes and prisons.
The requirement applies to doctors, nurses and others, but allows for exemptions on medical and religious grounds. Employees who refuse to be vaccinated face the possibility of losing their jobs.
After it was announced, the vaccine mandate prompted protests in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Roswell, but it also drew support from several health care organizations.
Meanwhile, the vaccine requirement also prompted the filing of the lawsuit by two plaintiffs who argued their constitutional rights to bodily integrity and to pursue their chosen profession were being violated.
One of the plaintiffs is Jennifer Blackford, who was placed on leave without pay from her job as a nurse at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque.
Presbyterian Healthcare Services, which runs the hospital and eight others around the state, announced shortly after the state’s vaccine mandate was unveiled that it would require COVID-19 vaccinations for its entire workforce of more than 13,000 people.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cited that company policy in its Tuesday ruling, saying that halting the enforcement of the state vaccine mandate would not necessarily mean Blackford could return to work.
The initial ruling in the lawsuit came in September, when a federal judge rejected a request to halt the vaccine requirement, saying New Mexico’s public health order that mandates vaccine shots for certain occupations did not “lack a rational relationship to a legitimate government purpose.”